It’s now just a couple of weeks until activists from across the party descend on Brighton for Labour’s annual conference. While the last two conferences were clouded by the memory of bruising leadership contests and devastating defeats in referendums and general elections, this year’s gathering deserves to be somewhat more upbeat. The party made significant gains during Theresa May’s snap general election and is riding high in the polls once again, while the Conservatives are forced to rely on the support of the DUP to keep them in office. Labour must now, more than ever, present itself to the public as a Government in waiting. So why is the Shadow Cabinet being kept on the sidelines?
While conference delegates await the full line-up of speakers this September, word has begun to spread that it will be the membership taking centre stage rather than Labour’s elected officials. Major speeches are likely to be limited to a “fab 5″ of leading figures – Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberrys, Diane Abbott and Kier Starmer- as well as Deputy Leader Tom Watson. Most other Shadow Cabinet members will be relegated to minor roles or dropped entirely; Labour’s recently elected Metro Mayors won’t feature either. More time will instead be designated for members to contribute from the podium.
Giving members a larger voice is an admirable goal and has long been an ambition of Corbyn and his team. The question is whether this year’s conference is the right time and place. I would argue that it isn’t, or at least not at the expense of the MPs we hope will form a Government in the not-too-distant future.
There are a number of reasons for this but, most straightforwardly, there is simply a lot to discuss. For The Many, Not The Few, Labour’s 2017 manifesto, was warmly greeted by many party members but much of its content was never debated at Conference. I for one would like to hear from the people potentially responsible for delivering our policy commitments on how they plan to turn their vision into a reality, as well as how that might change the lives of British people. The same goes for our elected Metro Mayors. Much of this Conference will rightly focus on how Labour can get back in to office in Westminster but at city halls across the country we are already in power. On issues from housing to education and to homelessness, Sadiq, Andy, Steve and Labour’s hard-working councillors are demonstrating how we can turn Labour values into policy in 2017. We should be able to listen to them and learn from their examples.
Secondly, the rumoured list of speakers are telling as much for what it leaves out as who it includes. While the 6 proposed speeches cover Brexit and the great offices of state, they don’t focus on Labour’s policies for many of our public services. We spent so much of the election campaign talking about the NHS, education and housing but Conference won’t hear from Jon Ashworth or Angela Rayner. If we have more to say than the Conservatives on these vital issues, why don’t we afford our spokespeople the chance to make the case to the public in prime time?
It may not have escaped your notice either that every one of the “Fab Five” represent London constituencies. While this isn’t a problem per-se, if they are the only keynote speakers than questions will be asked. Rightly or wrongly, the media will focus on comments from public figures like the Shadow Cabinet and not comments from the membership. Labour holds power on Wales, found itself in electoral difficulty in parts of the Midlands and North on the Summer and still has a mountain to climb in Scotland. Putting Labour voices from these parts of the country on TV and in the public eye might not be such a bad idea.
Finally, we have to ask what the story emerging from Conference will be if it isn’t a bold policy statement led by the whole Shadow Cabinet. Without that focus, the risk is that the party will once again look inward for the third year in a row. If we use Conference for internal policy squabbles like a debate on the so-called McDonnell Amendment, we miss a chance to take the fight to the Tories. If all we talk to each other about is our own internal disagreements, then that’s all the media will write about and all the public will see.
Party Conference is the one time of year that Labour is guaranteed a week of wall to wall uninterrupted coverage. It’s a huge opportunity and one we should use to build on our gains at the election and to keep making our case to the public. We should take this chance to put our Shadow Cabinet front and centre. It might be another year before we can do so again.